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Answering battles over doctrine and liturgy, Pope Francis praises unity in the church

Speaking to a group of Jesuits in Quebec, the pope held up the Canadian bishops as an example of what the church can achieve when working as one.

Pope Francis presides over a Mass at the National Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupre, July 28, 2022, in St. Anne de Beaupre, Quebec. Pope Francis paid a “penitential” six-day visit to Canada recently to beg forgiveness from survivors of the country’s residential schools, where Catholic missionaries contributed to the “cultural genocide” of generations of Indigenous children by trying to stamp out their languages, cultures and traditions. (AP Photo/John Locher)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — On the last day of his apostolic visit to Canada, Pope Francis spoke to a group of Jesuit priests and emphasized the importance of unity among bishops and in the entire church, even as divisions over liturgy and doctrine continued to plague his papacy.

A transcript of the pope’s meeting Friday (July 29) with 15 Jesuits in Quebec City was published Thursday by La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit magazine. In a lengthy conversation, the pope answered questions about his vision for a synodal church, the development of church doctrine and reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

The pope, who went to Canada at the request of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian Catholic bishops to address the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Catholic-run residential schools, apologized on behalf of the church for the wrongs of the past. In his discussion with the Jesuit priests, he praised the role that the Canadian bishops have played in paving the road toward reconciliation.

Francis said that his visit was “just the icing on the cake” and that it was “the bishops who have done everything with their unity.”

“When an episcopate is united,” he said, ” it can deal with the challenges that arise.” By contrast, the pope said, ideology is “the worst enemy against the unity of the church and of the episcopates.”

Francis also addressed lingering questions from the Canada trip, including whether his apology came on behalf of the entire church.

“I do not speak for myself or for an ideology or a party. I am a bishop and I speak in the name of the church, not in my own name,” he said, stressing that his apology was for the church as an institution. 

Asked why he did not meet with sexual abuse survivors while in the country, Francis said he didn’t want to detract from the message of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and that, anyway, the trip’s packed schedule made personal meetings impossible. But he said he had answered the survivors’ letters. 

“Many people responded to me saying that they understood that this was not an exclusion at all,” he said.

But clashes over church doctrine that have cropped up with increasing frequency in the pope’s tenure were unavoidable. “Changes needed to be made, and they were made,” he told the Jesuit priests. “Law cannot be kept in a refrigerator. Law accompanies life and life goes on. Like morals, it is being perfected.”

Francis pointed to how morality and doctrine have developed in time with regard to slavery and the possession of nuclear weapons. He objected to the view that “the doctrine of the church is monolithic” while praising the importance of defending “authentic” tradition.

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard the papal flight back from Canada, July 30, 2022, where he paid a six-day pastoral visit. Francis wrapped up his Canadian pilgrimage by meeting with Indigenous delegations and visiting Inuit territory in northern Nunavut. In one of his addresses, he assailed the Catholic missionaries who "supported oppressive and unjust policies" against Native peoples in the country's notorious residential schools and vowed to pursue truth and healing. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/ Pool via AP)

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard the papal flight back from Canada, July 30, 2022, where he paid a six-day pastoral visit. Francis wrapped up his Canadian pilgrimage by meeting with Indigenous delegations and visiting Inuit territory in northern Nunavut. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/ Pool via AP)

“We must take the origin as a reference, not a particular historical experience taken as a perpetual model, as if we had to stop there,” he said, comparing the attitude of “it has always been that way” to “paganism of thought.”

His comments were similar to those aboard the papal plane returning from Canada, when the pope answered a question about birth control, which Catholic doctrine considers “intrinsically evil.” The pope said that while the evolution of doctrine “is a good thing,” it must occur within the church and in line with tradition.


RELATED: Leaving Canada, Pope Francis said it might be time to slow down as health declines


Among the several changes that Francis has brought to the church is the near total ban on the saying of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, which had been liberalized by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. “The most recent verification made it clear that there was a need to regulate the practice, and above all to avoid it becoming a matter, let us say, of ‘fashion,’ and remaining instead a pastoral question,” the pope told the Jesuits.

Francis recalled the “monstrous liturgical deformations” espoused by the left during the 1960s and ’80s in his native Latin America, and the “backward looking intoxication” of conservative Catholics.

“When there is conflict, the liturgy is always mistreated,” he said.

The pope spoke about his upcoming summit of bishops at the Vatican on synodality — Francis’ vision of a more horizontal, inclusive church that encourages the participation of laypeople.

“It bothers me that the adjective ‘synodal’ is used as if it were the latest quick fix for the church,” he said.

Francis made clear that synodality “is not focused on a vote, nor is it a dialectical confrontation between a majority and a minority.” Unlike a democracy or a parliament, the protagonist of a synod is the Holy Spirit, he added, while rejecting efforts to “squeeze it all into the funnel of a single issue.”


RELATED: Pope Francis not fully briefed prior to Canadian visit


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